“Don’t Filter Me” Initiative Challenges Illegal Internet Filtering That Exposes Schools to Liability for Censorship
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Southern California today warned Rowland Unified School District that its Internet filtering software has been improperly configured to block access to web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The organization has sent demand letters to school districts across the country as part of its national “Don’t Filter Me” initiative, which seeks to combat illegal censorship of LGBT educational information on public school computer systems.
The M86 Solutions filtering software in question includes a category called “Lifestyle” that blocks access to educational LGBT-related websites that are not sexually explicit in any way. The ACLU discovered that public schools across the country had improperly activated the “Lifestyle” filter and blocked access to sites such as the Gay Straight Alliance Network; the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; the National Youth Advocacy Coalition; the Safe Schools Coalition; the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, and other sites that provide resources for students who experience anti-LGBT bullying. Many schools activated the filter in the mistaken belief that it blocked sexually explicit content.
“There could be school districts throughout Southern California that have activated anti-LGBT filters without realizing it,” said James Gilliam, deputy executive director for the ACLU of Southern California and director of its LGBT Project. “Given the importance of the materials available on these websites, schools need to ensure their filtering software is properly configured to provide viewpoint-neutral access to these important educational resources.”
Last week, one of M86’s competitors, Lightspeed Systems, announced that it would remove a similar filter from its software, which blocked access to educational LGBT websites.  M86 is one of five filtering companies identified by the ACLU that continue to use a specialized filter designed to target LGBT content that is not pornographic or sexually explicit.
“Students need to be able to find information about their legal rights and about suicide and bullying prevention, but in many school districts they’re not able to access information that’s vitally important for them,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.  “Schools that learn their filtering software is blocking access to LGBT educational content should act quickly to remedy this constitutional violation.”
When used by a public school, programs that block all LGBT educational content violate First Amendment rights to free speech, as well as the Equal Access Act, which requires equal access to school resources for all extracurricular clubs. This means that gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups must have the same access to national organizational websites that help them to function, just as other groups such as the Key Club and the chess club are able to access their national websites.  By blocking access to LGBT educational websites, schools deny helpful information to gay-straight alliances and other support groups that could be vital for troubled LGBT youth who either don’t have access to the Internet at home or do not feel safe accessing such information on their home computers.
“We hope that M86 follows Lightspeed’s lead and removes its ‘Lifestyle’ filter, which is designed to discriminate against LGBT viewpoints,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the national ACLU LGBT Project. “The vast majority of school districts have no desire to discriminate against LGBT-related content and are simply trying to protect their students from pornographic or sexually explicit materials.  Why should a software company include a feature that could be mistakenly activated and cause the school to violate the Constitution?  By failing to step in to remove its ‘Lifestyle’ feature, M86 is doing a disservice to its customers and the students they serve.”
The ACLU’s online petition calling on web companies to stop blocking LGBT sites is available by clicking here.
A video showing students how to test whether their school is illegally filtering content and providing instructions for reporting censorship can be seen here: www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/dont-filter-me
Students can report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools here: action.aclu.org/dontfilterme
More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues: www.aclu.org/safeschools